Obama: "I didn't campaign on the public option"

Responding to criticism from the left, the president makes a dubious claim about his record

Published December 22, 2009 8:40PM (EST)

In an interview with the Washington Post that hit the Internet Tuesday afternoon, President Obama sought to defend himself from the criticism he's faced from the left over the way the healthcare reform debate has ended up. While doing so, though, he may have only succeeded in further alienating and angering liberals.

"Nowhere has there been a bigger gap between the perceptions of compromise and the realities of compromise than in the health-care bill," Obama told the Post. "Every single criteria for reform I put forward is in this bill."

By itself, that's basically true, though it's not what many progressives want to hear right now. But Obama may have really stepped in it when he went to the real sticking point for a fair number of liberals right now, the lack of a public option in the Senate bill and the perception that the White House did little, if anything, to fight for it.

The idea has "become a source of ideological contention between the left," Obama said, adding, "I didn't campaign on the public option."

The president's claim that he "didn't campaign on the public option" is at best on shaky ground, factually speaking. It's unmistakably true that during the campaign his plan for reform included a public option.

A summary of Obama's proposal -- still up on BarackObama.com -- says it "Offers a public health insurance option to provide the uninsured and those who can’t find affordable coverage with a real choice." And a document his campaign put together, "Barack Obama's Plan for a Healthy America," says:

The Obama plan both builds upon and improves our current insurance system, upon which most Americans continue to rely, and leaves Medicare intact for older and disabled Americans. The Obama plan also addresses the large gaps in coverage that leave 45 million Americans uninsured. Specifically, the Obama plan will: (1) establish a new public insurance program available to Americans who neither qualify for Medicaid or SCHIP nor have access to insurance through their employers, as well as to small businesses that want to offer insurance to their employees

On the other hand, the words "campaign on" have a fairly specific meaning -- they imply making some issue or message a particular focus of your campaign, as in, "In 2004, President Bush campaigned on terrorism." And while it was indeed a pretty weaselly thing for him to say, Obama's comment was, on that score, accurate.

Yes, the public option was included in his plan for healthcare reform, but he never really ran on it and barely even pushed it during 2008. As NBC's Chuck Todd noted in September, Obama "never uttered the words 'public option' or 'public plan' in his big campaign speeches on health care."

A search of Lexis-Nexis' database of news coverage for the words "Barack Obama" and "public option" returns only 46 results from the period between Jan. 1, 2008, and Oct. 31, 2008. Similarly, a search for "Barack Obama" and "public plan" comes up with only 362 results for the same time frame, and most of those don't bolster the case that Obama did campaign on the idea -- the results are dominated by media outlets' comparisons of the candidate's published plans. And when the formulations used on Obama's Web site and in his campaign document, "public health insurance option" and "public insurance program" are swapped into the search, there are only three results and 51 results, respectively.

At the same time, one result from that last search, a candidate questionnaire sent out by Newsday, does show again that this really is a question of Obama trying to get cute with semantics.. Asked to keep each of his answers to 50 words or less, Obama's summary of his healthcare plan was, "I have pledged to sign a universal health bill into law by the end of my first term in office. My plan will ensure that all Americans have health care coverage through their employers, private health plans, the federal government or the states. For those without health insurance I will establish a new public insurance program."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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